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Cardinal Walter Kasper has come increasingly under fire from fellow cardinals and others in the Church for his comments about marriage, divorce and Communion. While some are concerned by these visible disagreements, and Cardinal Kasper himself having even suggested that his critics are personally attacking him and Pope Francis, this really is simply what Pope Francis has said he wanted: open and free discussion about the topics that the Synod will devote its time to next month. And while I usually don’t want to commit myself to stark distinctions between left and right, orthodox and liberal, in this discussion it really does seem that those who want the Church to change or loosen up her teachings are honestly insulted by those who disagree.
In an interview for Vatican Radio, Cardinal Kasper commented on the situation. I have translated some of his answer which I think are most interesting in this context.
“Of course everyone has the right to publicly state their opinion. Nothing can be brought against that. But I wonder if the entire Synod is not being reduced to a single point. It is about the pastoral challenges in the context of the new evangelisation. That is far broader field. An insider problem is being place at the centre here. What matters is to be able to speak again and discuss the beauty and the Christian understanding of the family, which many today no longer know – it is about far more fundamental problems than simply this one. And secondly: what sort of understanding of the Gospel is this? It is the Good News. One can’t turn it into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not. The Pope wants an open discussion, and that should be held. Then, in the Synod, to listen quietly to one another, in an atmosphere of prayer, and the in the end make a decision for the good of the faithful. I will not enter into polemics.”
“Without doubt the family is the cell of society and the cell of the life of the Church. In the family, in marriage and family, life and faith come closest together. It is an essential reality of life which has been raised to the glory of a sacrament. In that way it is a very vital and central issue for the Church to stand for marriage and family and offer solutions for the crisis that exists today. It is about these pastoral challenges, which is the theme of the Synod, not a war of doctrine. Of course, pastoral care is impossible without being oriented on the truth. But the truth is not an abstract system, but in the end it is Jesus Christ in person, and we need to bring the people close to Christ. In that sense the Synod must be oriented on the truth and understand Tradition as a living and bubbling spring and not as a rigid system.”
“I have posed a question, not simply suggested a solution. And I posed that question in agreement with the Pope. That’s very important for me. I asked, “When a marriage has failed one should do everything to repair it. But when there is no way back, when someone has entered into a new relationship which is, humanly speaking, a happy one, lived in a Christian fashion, when there are children, one can’t give up this new relationship without serious consequence. And we must also see how God offers new chances – and God does. That is His mercy, that He does not let go of anyone of good will. And everyone does what he can in their situation. And I think that this should be pastorally clarified in every individual case, after a period of orientation. That is called the ‘Via poenitentialis’ – but those involved suffer enough already without it. They do not need to perform great acts of penance. But a new orientation is necessary. That should be the sacrament of penance – that is why we have it – and the sacrament of penance also means re-admission to the Eucharist. But as I said, that is not the solution for all cases, presumably for a minority of all people who live in our communities, who suffer from it and have an honest desire for the sacraments, who urgently need the sacraments to deal with their difficult situations.”
In general it is hard to disagree with much of what the cardinal says. He is very right that the entire Synod is indeed being reduced this single topic (and his perceived opponent Cardinal Burke recently said the exact same thing). His words about the importance of family and the Church’s defense of and communication about it are also very important, as are his concerns for those who are involved in a good, Christian, loving second relationship while their first marriage is still canonically valid. There is a problem there, but not with the quality of the second relationship.
And that’s were the problem of the discussion lies. Too many people shift the focus to those second relationships and how the mean Church wants to destroy them and the happiness of those involved. That is a clear untruth. The fact remains that a marriage is a sacrament, and therefore something that can’t be broken by human hands (we simply need to listen to Christ’s words: “What God has joined, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9)). So when a marriage exists (we’re looking at pure existence here, not quality), there can’t be a second marriage next to it. This is, in essence the basis of the argument. All discussion and, indeed, pastoral care needs to be built on it. And at the latter the Synod will look in detail.
Cardinal Kasper’s mistake, in my opinion, is that he sweeps aside this basis when he says, “One can’t turn [the Gospel] into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not.” There must be discussion, certainly, for the good of the faithful. But there are also parameters, which are set by Christ. If we want to follow Him, we must accept and work within His parameters. The Codex of Canon Law is the result of centuries of understanding these parameters and translating them for a host of situations, places and times. There must always be such development, and in that sense the law can change. But it can not be overwritten, swept aside or corrected as if what was once true no longer is. In the end it reflects the Truth that is its founder, Jesus Christ.
The Synod will certainly look at the law, but not in order to change it. No, it will concern itself with translation and communication. How can the pastoral care that the Church now offers be improved, so that what she asks the faithful is also possible for them to achieve. In a recent interview Cardinal Burke said, “It simply makes no sense to talk about mercy which doesn’t respect truth. How can that be merciful?” He’s right. Truth and mercy are not separate. How is it merciful to encourage someone to move further away from the truth that he or she wants to follow? And how are we true to what Christ’s asks of us if we show false mercy?
“Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman who was threatened with death by stoning, but he did not tell her to keep up her good work, to continue unchanged in her ways. He told her to sin no more.”
Words from Cardinal George Pell, until recently the archbishop of Sydney and today the Secretary for the Economy of the Holy See and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals. He writes these words in the foreword to a book that will be publishes in the runup to the Synod of Bishops which is set to begin on 5 October. Like so many before (and undoubtedly after) him, Cardinal Pell is speaking about one of the topics of the Synod: the question of whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion.
The quote above refers to the first part of chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, which relates the meeting of Jesus with a woman accused of adultery. While the Pharisees are intent on stoning her for he misdeed, Jesus offers no accusation, but looks at the scribes and Pharisees instead, turning their eagerness for condemnation against them. If there is one among them without sin, He says, let him throw the first stone. None does, and they leave. Left alone with the woman, Jesus does not condemn her, but sends her on her way with a simple command: “Go away, and from this moment sin no more”.
In the discussions about the Synod and the questions about doctrine and pastoral practice it is expected to tackle, it often seems as if there is a division between mercy on the one hand and doctrine on the other. This is an unnatural division and one that does not reflect the Catholic faith and should not be expected to be honoured by the Synod. Cardinal Pell also writes that “doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory”.
The example of Jesus given above is, I think, a very important one. For here we have a situation in which someone has sinned and is subject to God’s judgement. Jesus’ way of acting here offers a blueprint of how we must act in similar situations. Approach with mercy: Jesus does not speak unnecessarily, He does not expound on the whys and wherefores of law and condemnation. He expects all involved to know enough about that anyway. Only in the end does He refer to the relevant teachings when He tells the woman to go and change her ways. So He does want her to stop doing hat she has done, and reorder her life to the teachings that He offers and the law He has come to fulfill.
Mercy and doctrine are not mutually exclusive, but strengthen and enrich each other. Those who pretend that we must between one and the other are, quite simply, wrong. We must be merciful like Jesus, and we must fulfill His law. That is why I do not think that the Synod will change the rules in any significant way. What it will look at is how mercy can help in upholding the law, how the pastoral side of the equation can be improved to better allow us and others to follow Christ. A legalistic culture will not achieve that, and neither will a culture that allows everything for the sake of mercy.
Making headlines is not always easy. I sometimes find myself having completed a blog post with relative ease, only to struggle with coming up with an eye-catching headline. They need to be short, interesting and true to the content of the article they announce and, in essence, summarise. I imagine that these are the same concern of those who write for a living for newspapers, journals and on websites. But in recent days too many have failed to follow the rules…
Yesterday, 20 Roman couples were married in St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Francis. This is pretty rare for Popes to do for the simple reason of their many other duties. Pope Benedict XVI never did it, and Pope St. John Paul II only got around to it once over the 27 years of his pontificate. But as he is the bishop of the Diocese of Rome, witnessing the marriage of some of the faithful of his diocese is a wonderful opportunity to be near to his closest flock: the Romans themselves.
The couples were from all walks of life and a broad range in age, and all had their own stories, as the Pope hinted at in his homily: “The path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human. It is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life!” Rare are the couples whose story is the stereotypical romantic one: they meet, fall in love, get married, have children and live happily ever after. I think it is safe to assume that none of the twenty couples married yesterday have had such smooth sailing. And that is what inspired many headlines.
“Pope marries sinners,” we read. “Francis overthrows tradition by marrying cohabitating couples!” and more along such lines. The essence of all this was that Pope Francis, they said, in contrast to Catholic teaching and the practice of the Church for years, married people who were living in sin. But was that really true?
The simple answer is no. In reports about yesterday’s ceremony we read that one of the grooms has had a previous married nullified and that a bride already had a child. Others were apparently already living together for a long time before marrying. While it is objectively so that the Church has its concern about children being born outside marriage and cohabitation while not married, these in themselves have never been reason for the Church refusing to marry couples. In fact, it is simply so that the Church gladly welcomes any couple who wants to receive the sacrament of marriage.
Marriage is a sacrament that includes both rights and duties. To oneself, to one’s partner, to God and to the community. It is good for the future husband and wife to be well aware of these, be willing to accept them and know how to include them in their lives together. That is a lifelong process, but it starts before marriage begins.
From the outside we may notice many irregularities – a child outside of marriage, a previous marriage – but we should not jump to conclusions about these 20 Roman couples. All we know is that these irregularities are now regularised, and that is reason for joy.
There is certainly no reason to see sins and new developments where there are none. Pope Francis did not do anything that could not be done before, and nothing that priests across the world don’t do regular (although they would rarely marry forty people in one go). What is remarkable, however, is that it happened. That 20 couples said yes to each other, promised to stand together in good and bad times and let their love bear fruit and new life in all sorts of ways. That’s the true headline.
Photo credit:  Alessandra Tarantino/AP,  Paul Haring/CNS
In what could be called the most significant shakeup of the Curia since his pontificate began, Pope Francis today appointed Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera as the new archbishop of his native Valencia. This leaves the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments – which the cardinal headed since late 2008 – vacant, which is unusual in itself. Curial congregations usually only fall vacant when a sitting prefect dies. Reassignments are usually carefully planned so that when a prefect goes, his successor is already waiting in the wings.
To date, Pope Francis has not busied himself too much with reassigning the prefects and president of the dicasteries of the Curia. 17 months in, the Holy Father appointed Cardinal Parolin as Secretary of State, Cardinal Pell as Secretary for the Economy, Cardinal Piacenza as Major Penitentiary and Cardinal Stella as Clergy prefect. Divine Worship and Sacraments has one of the most important mandates in the Curia, perhaps comparable only to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in that it has direct influence on practice and understanding of the faith. Add to that the fact that it is extremely rare for Cardinal-prefects to leave the Curia for an appointment in an (arch)diocese (There is a single precedent from 2006 when Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe went from the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples to Naples).
As for his successor, the name of Archbishop Piero Marini continues being named. The erstwhile master of ceremonies under Pope Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI from 1987 to 2007 today heads the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses. As MC he was responsible for organising (and making significant stylistic choices for) the liturgical celebrations of the Pope, a task now performed by Msgr. Guido Marini, who is not related to the archbishop. Many have expressed serious concerns about the possibility that Archbishop Marini may succeed Cardinal Cañizares Llovera. Whereas the latter is known as the ‘little Ratzinger’ (shown above with ‘big’ Ratzinger), sharing the Pope emeritus’ focus on the Second Vatican Council as being in continuity with the past, Marini advocates it as a radical break with the past. And this shows in his liturgical choices.
Cardinal Cañizares Llovera’s appointment to Valencia is part of a chain of events that begins with the retirement of the Archbishop of Madrid. Aged 78, Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela is well beyond retirement age and completes 20 years in the Spanish capital. His successor was generally expected to be Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, but he may have chosen not to accept an appointment to the demands of Spain’s largest diocese, instead accepting the smaller Valencia, which also happens to be his native archdiocese (he was a priest of Valencia from 1970 to 1992). Valencia own Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra goes to Madrid in his stead, although not as a second choice. Archbishop Osoro Sierra has been compared to Pope Francis himself, a man of practical faith and shepherding from the trenches, so to speak.
For both the cardinal and the archbishop, their new appointments are to their third archdioceses: Cardina Cañizares Llovera was archbishop of Granada and Toledo before going to Rome, and Archbishop Osoro Sierra headed Oviedo and then Valencia, and now Madrid. Below are full overviews of the ecclesiastic paths of all three players in this tale:
Antonio Cardinal Cañizares Llovera (68)
- Priest of the Archdiocese of Valencia from 1970 to 1992
- Bishop of Ávila from 1992 to 1996
- Archbishop of Granada from 1996 to 2002
- Archbishop of Toledo from 2002 to 2008
- Vice-President of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference from 2005 to 2008
- Created cardinal, with the title church of San Pancrazio, in 2006
- Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments from 2008 to 2014
- Archbishop of Valencia since 2014
Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra (69)
- Priest of Santander from 1973 to 1996
- Bishop of Orense from 1996 to 2002
- Archbishop of Oviedo from 2002 to 2009
- Archbishop of Valencia from 2009 to 2014
- Vice-President of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference since 2014
- Archbishop of Madrid since 2014
Antontio María Cardinal Rouco Varela (78)
- Priest of Mondoñedo-Ferrol from 1959 to 1976
- Auxiliary Bishop of Santiago de Compostela, and titular bishop of Gergis, a from 1976 to 1984
- Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela from 1984 to 1994
- Archbishop of Madrid from 1994 to 2014
- Created cardinal, with the title church of San Lorenzo in Damaso, in 1998
- President of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference from 1999 to 2005 and from 2008 to 2014
- Member of the Council of Cardinals for the Study of Organisational and Economic Problems of the Apostolic See from 2004 to 2014
Photo credit:  Osservatore Romano
And so, on an August afternoon last week, the Dutch bishops announced the first fruits of a 2001 request from Rome to realise a new, more accurate translation of the Roman Missal. The process has long been in apparent limbo, although work must have progressed behind the scenes. There was little way of knowing it did, though, and as late as February of 2012, Cardinal Eijk stated that a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer – to be the same in both the Netherlands and Flanders, as the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments desired – would still be a long way off. But the differences are now overcome, and the Congregation gave its permission for use and publication on 10 June of this year. The bishops are still to announce exactly when the new texts may be used in the Churches.
As the process took so long and information about progress was so scant, there are still many questions. How exactly will the changes be introduced? Will the faithful simply be presented with a fact, or will there be suitable catechesis? Looking at a similar effort – the new English translation of the Missal – and some of the initial responses to the new text of the Lord’s Prayer, the need for catechesis seems obvious. It is perhaps a characteristic of the Dutch mentality that any change is looked upon with suspicion. What’s more, in matters of faith, one’s own feelings and experience of the new is contrasted with what is known, and the known is usually clung to. “I am going to keep praying the Our Father in my own words, because that’s the way I like it.” With a change of this kind, people not only need to know the reason for it, but also the reasons of these texts, in whatever translation, in the first place. Why do we pray the Our Father? Why does the Mass have the structure it has? Why use one word and not the other?
Words convey meaning, obviously. The words we use in prayer reflect the faith we have, and in that sense it goes both ways: we address God, but the words we utter also teach us. Words, the Word, is central to our faith. Christ speaks to us in the Gospel, the liturgy and even our own prayers, and what He tells us must be translated well. Translation can’t muddle up the original meaning. It’s too important for that.
I hope that the announcement of the new translation, as well as the publication of a first “small Missal” is a first step that is followed by a program of catechesis and education about the word we use and their meaning.
The Lord’s Prayer has existed for decades in both a Dutch and Flemish translation which differed in various places. These differences are by now ingrained in the collective consciousness of the faithful, so finding acceptable changes was a long and slow process. Not only did the new translation need to be more faithful to the Latin source, but it also needed to remain understandable. The words and passages that were the same in both versions were not changed, but the differences were. Here follows a brief look at what was changed. I’m offering English equivalents of the relevant Dutch translations, so this overview serves more as an explanation of the problems and their solutions, and not as an accurate reflection of the text.
The Latin text is as follows:
Pater noster qui es in caelis:
sanctificetur nomen tuum;
adveniat regnum tuum;
fiat voluntas tua,
sicut in caelo, et in terra.
Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie;
et dimitte nobis debita nostra,
sicut et nos dimittimus
et ne nos inducas in tentationem;
sed libera nos a malo.
1. in caelis: In the Dutch version this was translated as in heaven, while the Flemish used in the heavens. The plural used in Flanders is more accurate, but was deemed to be archaic. The Willibrord translation of the Bible also generally uses heaven in the singular, and this translation is most often used in the Mass. The choice was made to retain heaven in the singular.
2. sanctificetur nomen tuum: Translated as Your name be holy (or hallowed) in The Netherlands and Holy (or hallowed) be Your name in Flanders. The version of the Netherlands was retained in order to retain the structure of the first three supplications of the prayer, which all end with verbs (hallowed, come, done).
3. sicut in caelo, et in terra: Here the issue centered around the word as (sicut). The Netherlands use zoals, while Flanders uses als. Both words are close in meaning, with zoals something like like as, and als meaning as. The word sicut appears twice in the text and is translated the same both times in the Dutch and differently in the Flemish text. The choice was made for zoals, to keep both instances of the word the same in translation.
4. dimitte nobis debita nostra: Translated as Forgive us our trespass/mistake/guilt (singular) in the Netherlands and Forgive us our trespasses (plural) in Flanders. Debita is also plural, so the choice was made to retain the Flemish translation.
5. sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris: Here the translations differed significantly. The Netherlands had As we forgive others their trespassing, while Flanders used As we forgive our debtors. As mentioned above, sicut was translated zoals. The Netherlands translations translates the noun debitores with a description (others who trespass), while the Flemish also employ a noun (debtor, albeit not strictly in the financial sense). For this reason, and although the equivalent of debtor in this meaning is not very common in Dutch, the Flemish version was retained.
6. et ne nos inducas in tentationem: Here, no difference existed between the Dutch and Flemish versions: And lead us not into temptation. The reason to nonetheless change this lies in the Greek source text of the Gospels in which the Lord’s Prayer comes to us. A more correct translation of tentationem is not so much temptation as it is today generally understood, but with the added meaning of being put to the test. The old translation also seems to imply that it is God doing the tempting, while we ask Him not to lead us into it. This is incorrect, as we, for example learn from James 1:13: “Nobody, when he finds himself tempted, should say, I am being tempted by God. God may threaten us with evil, but he does not himself tempt anyone.” The new translation uses the Dutch beproeving, which may be translated as test, but also as ordeal or tribulation.
They were 50,000 strong, coming from 26 dioceses in Germany and beyond, filling all of St. Peter’s Square for an encounter with Pope Francis yesterday. Young altar servers, accompanied by some of their bishops, on a pilgrimage to Rome. To their great surprise Pope Francis addressed them in German. In my translation:
“The words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that we heard, make us sit up and listen. The time is right, Paul says. God is serious now. What God has always told the people through the prophets He now shows us with a striking example. God explains us that He is a good father. And how does He do so? By the fact that He made His Son man. Through this concrete human being Jesus we can understand what God really means. He wants human beings, who are free but know themselves always to be secure as children of a good father.
To release this, God needs only a man. He needs a woman, a mother, to bring His Son into the world as a human being. That is the Virgin Mary, whom we honour with these Vespers tonight. She was completely free. In her freedom she has said yes. She has done what is good for all time. That is how she has served God and the people. Let’s keep her example in mind when we want to know what God expects from us as His children.”
After the Vespers, four altar servers asked questions to Pope Francis. The first question was about how young people could play a bigger part in the life of the Church, as suggested by the Holy Father in Evangelii Gaudium, and also what the Church expects from altar servers? The second server asked for advice in how to respond to friends who do not understand why anyone would want to be an altar server at the expense of other passtimes. Question three dealt with freedom, and how to experience, understand it in a life which has so many rules.
Pope Francis answered:
I thank you for this encounter on the occasion of your pilgrimage to Rome and I want to give you some food for thought related to the questions that your representatives have asked me.
You have asked me what you can do to contribute more in the Church and what the Christian community expects from you as altar servers. Let’s first remember that the world needs people who attest to others that God loves us and that He is our father. Everyone in society has the obligation to serve the common good by contributing to what is essential: food, clothing, medical care, education, information, the legal system, and so on. As disciples of the Lord we have an additional task, namely to be the “channels”, the lines which pass the love of Jesus on to others. And in this duty you, youth and young adults, have a special role: You are called to tell your contemporaries about Jesus – not just in the parishes or organisations, but especially outside them. That is a task which has been especially entrusted to you, because with your courage, your enthusiasm, your spontaneity and your sociability it is easier to reach the thoughts and hearts of those who have drifted away from the Lord. Many people of your age have an enormous desire for someone who tells them, with their lives, that Jesus knows us, loves us, forgives us, shares our problems and supports us with His mercy.
But in order to speak with others about Jesus, we must known and love Him, experience Him in prayer and in His Word. You have the advantage in that respect, because of your service in the liturgy, which allows you to be near to Jesus, the Word and the Bread of Life. Let me give you some advice: The Gospel reading you hear in the liturgy, read it again for yourselves, in silence, and apply it to your lives. And with the love of Christ, which you have received in Holy Communion, you will be able to put it into practice. The Lord calls each of you today to work in His field. He calls you to be happy players in His Church, willing to share with your friends what He has shared with your, especially His mercy.
I understand your problems of combining your service at the altar with your other activities, which are necessary for your human development and cultural formation. So you must organise a bit, plan things in a balanced way… but you are German, so that should be easy! Our life consists of time, and that time is a gift from God, so it must be used for good and fruitful things. Perhaps many young people waste too many hours with useless things: chatting on the Internet or on your mobile phone, but also with television programs. The products of technological progress, which should simplify life or increase its quality, are sometimes distractions from what is really important. Among the many things which are part of our daily routine, those that remind us of our Creator, who gives us life, who loves us and accompanies us on our journey through life, should have priority.
Because God has created us in His image we have also received from Him this great gift of freedom. But when we don’t use this freedom properly it can move us away from God, can let us lose that dignity which He has given us. That is why guidance, rules and regulations are necessary – both in society and also in the Church – to help us do the will of God and to live in this way according to our dignity as human beings and children of God. When freedom is not influenced by the Gospel it can turn into slavery, the slavery of sin. Adam and Eve, our first parents, moved away from the will of God and so fell into sin, and also into a bad use of freedom. Dear young friends, do not use your freedom wrongly! Do not waste your great dignity as children of God, which has been given to you. When you follow Jesus and His Gospel, your freedom will bloom like a flower and bear good and rich fruits. You will find true joy, since God wants us to be completely happy and fulfilled. Only when we immerse ourselves in the will of God, we can do what is good and be both the light of the world and the salt of the earth!
The Virgin Mary, who understood herself to be the “handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), is your example in the service of God. She, our mother, will help you, young people full of hope and courage, to be workers for good and labourers for peace in the Church and in society.”
In a recent circular letter, the text of which I have only come across in Spanish, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments announces some measures to ensure greater dignity and less distraction when it comes to the sign of peace in the Mass.
Although I have personally rarely experienced this moment in the Mass a overly distracting, its place in the liturgy may be considered odd, coming as it does at a moment when we are focussed on Christ among us in the bread and wine that have just been consecrated. We have prayed the Our Father and will soon come forward to receive Him in the communion. The sign of peace asks us to look to the people around us and exchange our wishes for peace with them. This can be distracting, as the question arises how many people to greet (just those immediately around you, the pews in front and behind you, people across the aisle?) and how long and in what manner to do so. In more enthusiastic societies, this may be fairly distracting and even disruptive in the atmosphere and focus of the liturgy. More subdued communities will, clearly, have less of a problem here.
In order to lessen this distraction and increase awareness of the actual meaning of the sign of peace, the Congregation proposes four things:
- It first emphasises that the gesture is not obligatory. The priest is free to decide when it is and is not suitable to invite the faithful to exchange the sign of peace. In my own parish I have seen this happen in weekday Masses, where there is no sign of peace, as opposed to the Masses on Sunday.
- Bishops’ conferences should think about making changes in how the sign of peace is made. Familiar and worldly greeting should be substituted with more appropriate ones. So, no high-fives, backslaps, bearhugs and such, but, for example, a short handshake, kiss, bow or other gesture.
- Clear abuses of the rite, like other liturgical abuses, are right out. No song of peace in place of a gesture between individual faithful, no roaming about the church looking for friends to greet, and during wedding or funeral Masses it should not be an occasion for congratulations or condolences.
- Lastly the Congregation urges the bishops’conferences to prepare catechesis on the sign of peace and how it should be observed.
In the end, the final point is the most important one: catechesis for both clergy and faithful. Without knowledge or awareness, there is no proper use or benefit. The sign of peace is never strictly horizontal, between people alone. It first has to be vertical, between God and man, before it can use its horizontal dimension. The sign of peace in the Mass is not like a regular greeting in the streets. In it we pass on the peace that Christ gives us (John 14:27), we must first receive before we can give. Let’s hope this letter will bear fruit.
And, dear Congregation, get some other official translations out…
Photo credit:  Jennifer Willems